What makes for a successful speech?
The truth is that it’s a complex mixture of art and science, intellect and emotion, journey and destination. You work fiendishly hard to get the content right, and then just as hard to nail the delivery.
Then you find that, at a certain point, the success or failure of a speech is not even up to you. It’s in the hands of the audience. If there’s a mismatch between expectations and the actual event, or if somewhere along the line you get misinformation about the event or the audience or both, then your speech can fall flat despite your best efforts.
I once watched a speaker open with a joke (usually a mistake, by the way, because it’s the wrong time for it, not because jokes are not great things) and knew it would fall flat. Sure enough, it did, and the speaker panicked, thinking that his material was no good, and was uneven for the rest of the talk. How did I know the joke wouldn’t work? I had used it myself a few minutes before.
Such are the perils of not listening to the previous speaker. I felt bad, but what could I do? I had no idea the other speaker would go for the same bit of hilarity. We hadn’t coordinated our talks in advance. We didn’t even know each other.
The point is that there are many variables involved, and you can’t possibly control them all.
If you can’t control all the variables, what should you do? Is there one thing you can focus on that’s more important than everything else and will help guarantee success?
I’ve thought of various answers to this question over the years for speakers, but having recently been watching the 25 or so Democratic presidential candidates, one quality is top of mind, because one speaker stands out from that pack.
Now, please understand I’m not talking about policy or politics here. I’m not endorsing anyone or suggesting that one will win the nomination. This is not a political blog or blog post.
What I am saying is that, by the criterion of public speaking excellence, one speaker stands out, and for one reason. It’s Cory Booker—and it’s presence. Check out Senator Booker’s home-town kickoff speech here. He’s hoarse, which detracts a bit from the effect, but he’s present.
What is presence? It’s the quality of being so focused on the audience in front of you and on your message that you make the audience feel that what you’re doing—and by extension, what they’re participating in—is the most important thing in the known universe right there and then. No one and nothing else matters as much as the speaker, the message and the audience in that moment. It’s a particularly difficult trick to manage when you’re giving the same speech over and over again on the campaign trail.
I have no idea what is actually going through Cory Booker’s mind when he speaks to audiences in Iowa and New Hampshire, saying the same things over and over again, but he’s got the art and science down of making it feel like nothing else signifies right then except him, his story and that audience.
You want to be successful as a speaker? Focus on the audience. Stop thinking about yourself and start thinking about the audience. One of the paradoxes of public speaking is that, if you can focus on the audience, you’ve got a chance to begin to enjoy yourself. Remember, a speech is not primarily about you, the speaker. It’s about whether or not the audience is moved to action.
So forget about you, and make your audience the most important humans on the planet at the moment of speaking.